Nelson: Jobs alone are not a cure for poverty

    This column has spent considerable time and space on facts and why they are important. Contemplating the difference between opinions, facts and outright lies is fine as an abstract exercise, but real-world examples can bring the distinctions into sharper focus. The age-old debate over welfare and work is a prime example.

    On Tuesday, with little fanfare and no public ceremony, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to strengthen existing requirements that public assistance recipients must work to qualify for benefits. While congressional action would be needed to enact new requirements, the order directs agency leaders to review programs under their departments, propose stronger requirements and find savings, and report their recommendations in 90 days.

    Should recipients of welfare, food stamps or subsidized housing be required to work if they are physically able? Well, of course. No one wants their hard-earned tax dollars to support people who would rather live off the government than work for a living.

    That’s an opinion, and it’s a fine one. President Trump certainly adheres to it.

    The president says assistance programs “trap” recipients in poverty, and if recipients just got jobs, they would no longer be poor.

    That’s another opinion. It’s not such a fine one, because it conflicts with reality — those pesky facts.

    The problem with demanding that assistance recipients work is that most of them already do. Those who don’t are mostly children, the elderly and the disabled.

    Take food stamps, for instance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as it is now known, provides food assistance to people in poverty.

    In Oregon, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show most SNAP recipients live in households with at least one person working. In our 2nd Congressional District, USDA figures from 2016 indicated only 15 percent of families receiving SNAP benefits had no one in the household working in the previous 12 months. The remaining 85 percent had one or more people working.

    If we want people to work, and of course we do, they need to be able to seek and find jobs. That means having access to food, shelter and transportation. For single parents, it means having access to child care. When they do find jobs, frequently those jobs don’t pay enough to support workers and their families without some continued assistance, whether with food, health care or housing. That’s especially true in Southern Oregon, where wages lag behind other areas of the state but housing costs don’t.

    The executive order says the federal government should invest in programs “that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.”

    The assumption behind that language is that the two are mutually exclusive — that having a job will magically cure poverty. The legions of working poor would beg to differ.

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